Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Wrong Argument for Smart Growth

"Growth is inevitable, and so we need smart growth to minimize the damage that growth does to the environment." This argument for smart growth is effective in places where the population is growing rapidly, but it hides the real reason that we should support smart growth.

The argument is confusing because it mixes up two meanings of the word “growth,” which can mean population growth or economic growth.

People who say this really mean that more development is inevitable because of population growth (in places like California and Florida), and we should minimize the damage it does.

But population growth is not inevitable. Population has already stopped growing in some places (such as Japan) and world population should stop growing later this century.

In reality, the principles of smart growth are important even where there is no population growth. For example, the population of the Cleveland metropolitan area has not grown in many decades, but hundreds of thousands of people have moved from old neighborhoods in the city to new suburbs, creating the same problems of sprawl, automobile dependency, and destruction of open space that exist in other American metropolitan cities. Cleveland should have followed the principles of smart growth and concentrated new development in existing cities and suburbs, even though its population is not growing.

Economic growth also is not inevitable. In fact, the smart growth movement is important precisely because it should make us question whether economic growth is desirable. Freeways and suburban housing were the engines of economic growth in post-war America, but it seems that we would be better off if we lived in old-fashioned neighborhoods where you can walk. The right argument for smart growth is that it allows simpler living and less consumerism than our current patterns of development.

Because we use the wrong argument for smart growth, some NIMBYs claim that they are the environmental purists. People who want to stop any new development in their neighborhoods, keeping densities low so it does not become any harder for them to drive, sometimes say: "We don’t favor smart growth, because we want to stop all growth."

Obviously, the smart growth advocates who want to build walkable neighborhoods are working to protect the environment, and the NIMBYs who want to keep driving are promoting consumerism and harming the environment. But the NIMBYs are able to confuse the issue because we use the wrong argument for smart growth.

We should not be using the term "smart growth." Instead, we should be saying that we want to build walkable neighborhoods so we can live more simply and can end economic growth.


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